Shizuoka’s wasabi farmers still reeling from September typhoon

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takamasa Yamazaki, center, works on restoring a stone wall for his wasabi paddies in Shizuoka on Nov.2.

SHIZUOKA — Takamasa Yamazaki could only sigh as he looked at the damage to a wall for his terraced wasabi paddies.

“Who knows how many years it will take before everything can be back to normal,” said Yamazaki, one the many farmers whose livelihood has been threatened by the record torrential rain from Typhoon No. 15 that battered the central and western parts of Shizuoka Prefecture in September.

Wasabi is a specialty of the prefecture and its cultivation been officially recognized as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System. But farmers like Yamazaki see grim prospects for continuing to produce the popular garnish plant.

They are working hard to restore the paddies amid fears that the business may never be profitable again.

Yamazaki spoke on Nov. 2 as he stood before a collapsed stone wall on a steep slope in Shizuoka City’s Shimizu Ward. His wasabi was growing steadily in preparation for the winter harvest, only to have a large portion of it washed away when heavy rains hit the area starting from the evening on Sept. 23.

The wasabi paddies are still covered with mud.

Yamazaki operates a shop called “Ocha no Yamayo” in the city selling tea and wasabi that he grows. His paddies cover more than 2,500 square meters, and more than 90% of the pre-harvest seedlings were washed away, a loss of potentially 13,000 stalks.

“At this time, the profit from wasabi is zero,” a dejected Yamazaki said. “I have no idea what lies ahead.”

Shizuoka Prefecture, which is said to be where wasabi cultivation originated, produced ¥3 billion worth of wasabi in 2020, a 70% national market share and easily the most in the country. Shizuoka City is second only to Izu in wasabi production in the prefecture, and supplies the pungent root plant to restaurants and other establishments all around the country.

Devastation caused by the typhoon to wasabi paddies has been officially declared in 23 places in Shizuoka City, and as of Oct. 24 — one month after the disaster — total damages amounted to ¥442 million. That accounts for one-fourth of the overall damage of about ¥1.82 billion to agricultural land in the prefecture.

What gives wasabi growers like Yamazaki the biggest headache is that there is no prospect for restoring the vital stone walls that support the paddies and which collapsed in the flooding.

Shizuoka’s wasabi paddies are terraced on steep slopes, which is only possible through the use of the stone walls. This facilitates the traditional method of cultivation by allowing clean water from upstream to run over the plants.

Yamazaki’s wasabi paddies, which has been passed down the generations from the Edo period (1603-1867), are located on a narrow mountain side which can not be accessed by heavy machinery.

In 2018, the prefecture was officially listed by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as a site of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems. The organization highly regarded the region’s continuing of traditional wasabi cultivation that is eco-friendly.

On Nov. 2, about 10 members of the youth division of the local agricultural cooperative arrived in the morning to help Yamazaki work on restoring his paddies.

“It will take time, but starting from what is possible, I want to return it to the way it was,” Yamazaki said with determination.